That sounds pessimistic though, and I'm really not. Which is kind of amazing, after my ruinous year. Margie, my gorgeous, cheerful, fuck-me-dizzy dream girl when I married her, turned into a fat, quarrelsome pig over the years, until I had to dump her or kill her. Then I mangled a disc in my lower back and couldn't put in the long days anymore, couldn't keep my eye on things. There I was, top homebuilder in town, made of money. Next thing you know I'm selling off my compressor, my saws, the backhoe, everything. Fuck.
But I'm always looking toward better days. I drive a potato chip truck now, and it's not bad. Potato chips don't weigh much, easy on my back. But the money's not exactly rolling in like it used to. Tell you what, though, I know the job I'd like to have. Summer nights, when I sit outside watching the stars, I hear at least one freight train rolling through Alton, over on the east side. I'd love to be the engineer on a train like that, stroking along with a big diesel under me. Sitting up there with a sack full of smoked turkey sandwiches and a big thermos of coffee, looking forward to seeing my special sweetheart somewhere along the route, to catch a few hours of kindness and comfort. Clacking and rumbling through the night, always going somewhere, with a big headlight bolted on that engine, pushing back the darkness.
Last Saturday afternoon I drove to the east side and parked, then walked over to wait by a crossing where the track cuts through the street, and a gate drops down and red lights blink. I wanted to catch a glimpse of the guy driving one of those diesels, give him a wave as the train passed me by.
I'd been there maybe ten minutes when a cop showed up. He parked his cruiser behind my car and started his light show, then walked over to where I was standing.
"Can I ask you what you're doing here, sir?" he said.
"Sure. I like trains. I'm just waiting to watch one go by."
Rookie cop, I'd say. Uniform a little too big, smooth skin, cheeks still filled out with a touch of baby fat. Face of a high school kid. He couldn't quite stand still, and tiny beads of sweat covered his hairless upper lip.
"I'm afraid I have to ask you, sir – you're not thinking of jumping in front of that train, are you?"
"That would be the farthest thing from my mind."
"Because we've had that happen not long ago."
"Yeah, I saw that in the paper."
"Well, I guarantee you, officer, that won't happen this afternoon. I like living."
"Alright, sir," he said, "but you'll need to vacate this area."
"And why's that?"
He pointed toward the tracks. "You stand over there, that's railroad right of way. You'd be trespassing." Then he pointed at me. "You stand there in the street, that's city right of way for use by motor vehicles. You're not in a safe condition."
Well, I wasn't going to argue with the kid. Trying to be a good cop, I guess. But as I drove home I thought, what is it with this life? A simple plan, a little something you want to do, and sure enough, some shitty piece of luck or some idiot comes along and makes it impossible. Jesus, it's not like I was asking for a beach house in the Bahamas, you know? Or to fuck a supermodel. I wanted to watch a train roll by. I had to laugh, though, thinking about that young cop, how much he has to learn. "A safe condition"? Who's he kidding? I don't care where you're standing, you better do what the little sparrows do – check the sky every few seconds, watching for the trouble that's bound to drop on you.
But it rolled off me. I used to fight every insult, drink away heartbreak, slam my fist into any door that closed in my face. I have the aches and pains and troubled memories to prove it. No more, though. I slide easy now. I live on rails.
Besides, I know a country road south of town that goes over a bridge where trains run underneath. You could camp out there for a month and not see a cop. I used to ride my bike out there as a kid, and it's funny, you stand on that bridge with a train coming toward you, and it looks like it's going so slow. Like you could jump down on it, no sweat, and have it carry you away, to turquoise lagoons and orange groves, if that's where you want to go. But then it runs underneath you, and you look down, and damn – you see how fast it's going, boxcars flashing past quick as the days of your life.
So yeah, I'll go out there soon. When that diesel comes at me, in the slow phase, I'll get a good look inside the engineer's space, five seconds easy, maybe ten. That's the view I want. I'll see his rifle and his radio, his suitcase and his cooler. I'll check out his shades and his hat and his faded denim overalls, washed a hundred times, soft as silk. But what I want to see most of all is the look on his face.
Bet my last dollar that son-of-a-gun'll be smiling.
Douglas Campbell's fiction has appeared online and in print, in publications such as Literary Potpourri, Flash Me Magazine, Every Day Fiction, Slow Trains Literary Journal, and Jabberwocky. His flash fiction, "Accidents" won the 2007 flash fiction contest held by Many Mountains Moving magazine, and his short story "Something Like That River" won the 2008 Dame Lisbet Throckmorton competition sponsored by Coffeehousefiction.com. Douglas lives in southwestern Pennsylvania.